Basement Files: 2

The basement has been a special challenge. When you tackle a major project, you imagine the easy parts and the hard parts and the gusty "hard work" that ambition and excitement abstract into something challenging but manageable; like running a couple of miles if you're not really a runner. You know you can do it, it's not a marathon, and it promises to spit you out the other side worn and stout, having earned your victory. Inevitably, however, there are high hurdles that you don't anticipate, and they are rarely physical. That would be too easy. I suspect my subconscious shields me from foresight when too much thought might curtail my natural  ambition.

Enter: The Basement. 

The day we first toured the house, I declined to view the basement. Instead, I hovered by the door with our realtor taking shallow breaths as the lead dust swirled around our heads while Malcolm and The Seller descended into the crypt trading anecdotes about tools, record collections and mold. Waiting for them to emerge so I could read the verdict in Malcolm's eyes, I stood, infused with awe at the condition of our dream house and laughing nervously with Louise.

The basement was a cave of dank, damp, creepy-crawly funk; a wild froth of decay and microscopic life. It teemed with spiders who crept in through the cracks of the boarded up windows and laid eggs in glowing white sacs.  Cloaked by a decade or more of opaque darkness with steady moisture coming up from the ground and in from the sides thanks to a crumbling, rusty downspout, it was like the abyss of the ocean supporting a unique and terrifying ecosystem. Access was via a hanging chad of a staircase which finally pulled away from the wall and literally collapsed as the men emerged from their tour, momentarily trapping The Seller below grade until Malcolm could hoist him back to the surface.

When the day came for my maiden voyage, we descended by ladder, armed with battery operated power tools and the meager beams of three flashlights. The immediate goal was to dig out the bricked up windows, let the light stream in and find the clue to staunching the flow of water. The spiders; the mold; the fungal growths spreading across the spongy beams; the draconian jars of preserved food that looked ready to explode and send vapors and spores of horror into the enclosed space: it all called for immediate action. Every itch of anxiety I have ever felt about bugs, germs, or the creeping underworld was muted by the spectacle of this environment.

Inside this funky chamber, my imagination runs before my intellect. Every flicker of beam or tickle in the shadows is a spider. It took me whole minutes to contemplate and at last remove my first whisper of cobweb no bigger than the head of a Q-Tip. But, I am cocooned in hazmat and the squeamishness gradually ebbs having merely been the runway for the higher hurdle that takes hold of me in the basement: doubt.

Can we really save this house? Did we get here in time? Have we bitten off more than we can chew? Is the foundation sound? What if the whole thing collapses on our heads? What if it's the Money Pit? Could I really be this lucky? This happy? Will the dream be shattered by a horrible disease contracted in this basement? In other words, and really the root of the matter: will I fail?

It wouldn't be fair to say "we" because Malcolm does not ask these questions. We are on this ride together but we each arrived by our own path with its itinerant experiences and their emotional aftermath. In this moment, in the alchemy of our "now", we balance each other and my fear is answered by his conviction.

Can we really do this? "Piece of cake," he says. 

 

The underworld. 

The underworld. 

Must unbrick the windows

Must unbrick the windows

What are they? 

What are they? 

A collection...

A collection...

LIfe!

LIfe!

This is fluffy up close.

This is fluffy up close.

More Life!

More Life!

I can't look at this without making a face.

I can't look at this without making a face.

First, let's just get this out of the way.

First, let's just get this out of the way.

Looks like a coffin

Looks like a coffin

Stronghold.

Stronghold.

The way out.

The way out.

From another angle...

There's a tender presence on every floor of this house of the lives that played out here over the course of the twentieth century. Remarkably, it was owned by the same family since around 1900, one member of which appears to have lived most of his life here and perhaps reached the end of it on a bed that we removed from what will someday be our living room. We didn't know this man, but he lives on in his old house through the snippets we've been told and the essence of him that we have conjured from the remnants of his life.

In some ways, our revival of this house feels like a tribute to this family. After "the old man" passed, derelicts broke in, had some kind of party, trashed the place and set it on fire. Whether the fire was deliberate or not, we do not know, but Newburgh had become a rough place. Drugs, crime and disregard were rampant and the town's karmic violence came into this house and ran roughshod over this time capsule of the great American twentieth century. 

It's hard not to romanticize what we find as we sort through the rubble. At first, I resisted the impulse out of a self-imposed emotional austerity. We were knee deep in someone else's nostalgia, three floors' worth, and did not want to be lost in sentiment. But it is jarring to pluck a delicate 70 year old handwritten letter from Poland out of the wreckage wrought by twenty-first century drug addicts!

Beautifully handwritten letters, pay stubs, church bulletins and newspapers that span the decades of the twentieth century; trinkets, pharmaceuticals, a rosary and a trench coat; fishing poles, an old iron sewing machine, a cash register; Depression era glassware, fabric swatches, coal burning stoves and actual buckets of coal: all scattered, strewn, shattered, plundered and charred. You bite your shovel into a gnarly pile of soot and plaster and the glint of a penny from 1918 catches your eye.

Pulling this touching ephemera out of the insult of the wreckage angered me. It felt like someone had gone into the "Bottom Drawer" at my mom's house, the place where the chronicle of my sister's and my childhood resides, and upended it, scattered it wide, set it on fire, pissed on it and stirred in some general mystery filth for good measure. It just felt mean.

Under these circumstances, maybe the matriarch wouldn't mind if I indulge in the elegant fantasy of her pretty glass bowls or romanticized the other-worldliness of her letters in our digital age. Her imprint has been buried in rubble here for years. This is not stuff of monetary value, but there is a deep ribbon of life running through the ugliness of a crime and it has indescribable value for me.

This house, now our house, is full of the future for me, but for an entire family it's the past. Someday, it will be the past for me. Resurrecting It presents a study of contrasts: the fleeting nature of life against the lure of ambition; the pull of the future and the weight of the past. 

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After the elephants...

After all that crazy burnt out, time worn, feather strewn, mold invested detritus was gone, it was time to get to work. DEMOLITION DAY.

All that pre-rubble (9.2 tons worth) was just in the way for making the REAL rubble. Once we could move around, it was time to take down the unwanted plaster and seek the beams. Down to the bones to see what we really have....

BTW, this was hard.

 

work. 

No ladder needed atop 5' high bag stacks

No ladder needed atop 5' high bag stacks

Malcolm had a two handed, double-hammer-swing from a top ladder rung technique going. I'm a fool for not running for the camera. Whatever you imagine, it was that good. Wham, wham, wham (ouch, sh--t), wham, wham...

3 Asian Elephants Just Left the Building

Or one full grown African elephant. OR 9.2 tons of rubble and debris.

!!!!!

Shoveled, bagged and removed by hand, 9.2 TONS of the craziest mixture of refuse you ever saw left the building on Dumpster Day No. 1. This house does not even know what happened to it. It wants to levitate it's so light and airy. The buildup to DD#1 saw cache of bags in strategic pockets growing on each floor as we shoveled, bagged, and lugged, weekend after weekend, distributing the weight strategically guided by our sixth sense attuned to dry rot, charred joists and questionable subfloor zones.

 

Look, you can see floor! 

Look, you can see floor! 

Floor, floor!! 

Floor, floor!! 

Thinking of the Landfill makes me sad..... 

Thinking of the Landfill makes me sad..... 

But just chuck those bags out the window!! 

But just chuck those bags out the window!! 

And into the dumpster!!! 

And into the dumpster!!! 

9.2 tons.  

9.2 tons.  

And they just come and get it and it's gone. Amazing. Thank you, Taylor. 

And they just come and get it and it's gone. Amazing. Thank you, Taylor. 

Rubble Shovelers

We shovel, we bag, we drag, we stack. We break, eat Mexican food, and get back at it. And then we collapse and open beers with hammers and wonder how we will feel the next day. It is almost impossible (almost) to imagine this house free of debris, and the dust is as fine and airborne as volcanic ash. But I believe it was once clean and orderly. There are hints of former tidiness in the bundled letters, church service programs, fabric swatches and jars of carefully preserved mystery food stacked in the basement.

Hazmat

Hazmat

Heavier than it looks!

Heavier than it looks!

More pay stubs scattered about... 

More pay stubs scattered about... 

Scoop, bag, scoop, bag. It takes practice not to miss the lip of the bag. Missing the lip of the bag with a heavy scoop is maddening. 

Scoop, bag, scoop, bag. It takes practice not to miss the lip of the bag. Missing the lip of the bag with a heavy scoop is maddening. 


Bag stations in every corner, waiting for Glorious Dumpster Day.

Bag stations in every corner, waiting for Glorious Dumpster Day.

Los Portales for our Texan souls

Los Portales for our Texan souls

Piles of swatches and rolled yarn in every floor

Piles of swatches and rolled yarn in every floor

pickled mystery items! 

pickled mystery items! 

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The State of Things

There are three floors like this. Pictures speak louder than words.

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Looking UP not across. Yikes! 

Looking UP not across. Yikes! 

There is exploded upholstery in this mess. Intact piles of feathers that become airborne when you try to scoop them up with a shovel.

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Paystubs spanning four decades are scattered like confetti...

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In the abstract, it's really very pretty....

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Oh but the beauty in that handrail shines through it all, does it not?

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That's an old washer/dryer! Heavy as a piano.

That's an old washer/dryer! Heavy as a piano.

Charred...sometimes we actually have to walk on this. We test the boundary of walkable and not and I think of how surprised I've been in the past when stoking a fireplace and a charred log refuses to crumble.

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Destroy/Create

It was time for a reset, so I've jumped headlong into creating a new space for Studio Hammett both literally and figuratively. Inch by inch, in the historic town of Newburgh, NY, my partner and I are digging out a fire ravaged 120 year old house from rubble and debris and the ephemera of the lives passed inside its walls. We are taking the nearly destroyed house, and in some ways ourselves, down to the bare bones where we will swab the decks clean and begin creating again. It is the ultimate set up for a fresh start. The remnants of the past and the promise of the future are mingling in the scorched space and, like a forest, seeds of renewal are gathering all around us.

Follow our progress here at StudioHammettHome.com

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